MAY 13, 2011
SOURCE: THEATRICAL (REGULAR SCREENING)
In a perfect world, we’d be seeing a sequel to Friday the 13th today, one that corrected the problems with that film and delivered the kickass modern Jason film we deserve. But alas, movie studios would rather spend 60+ million on something like Priest than 20 or so on a Friday the 13th movie. This baffles me to no end, but I’m sure it makes sense to them somehow, however, just for the record – while the crowd was decent for a midnight screening of a PG-13 horror movie (compared to Season of the Witch and The Rite’s crowds at the same theater), it was nowhere near as big as the midnight crowd for last year’s Nightmare on Elm Street.
Or even as big as Legion’s*, which is probably the best thing to compare Priest to since it’s the same director/star team, and once again blends religious concepts with post-apocalyptic horror. However, whether due to the fact that the two films do not share a writer, or the fact that Sony has seemingly re-edited the film to the bare minimum length required to call it a modern day feature (78 minutes without credits), it suffers from the exact opposite problem as Legion; whereas that film was too damn talky and waited too long to deliver any action, this one races from one action sequence to the next without letting you or the characters breathe. By the time it got to its big action showdown, I was just sort of tired of seeing Scott Stewart try to pull off Zack Snyder type slo-mo shots of Paul Bettany (least likely action hero ever!) jumping around via wires that they probably shouldn’t have even bothered to erase.
And the sad thing is it’s actually a pretty decent movie. The concept is fairly unique – vampires have taken over the world and thus humans live in walled-in cities that are run by 1984 types, and Priests are sort of the Jedi Knights of the world, keeping folks safe in a variety of ways. But there’s also a bit of Vietnam in there, as these soldiers are shunned by society (there's some quick dialogue about how they can't even get blue collar jobs) and abandoned by the people that they were protecting and/or acting on the behalf of. Interesting stuff for a summer action movie about vampires, right? Unfortunately, I didn’t really skip anything about this backdrop, as it only really takes up five minutes or so of the movie. There’s an “evil” overlord played by Christopher Plummer who runs the main city we see (I assume there are others, anyway?), someone who should be a sort of secondary villain the way the old dude in Demolition Man was alongside Wesley Snipes, but he’s in like two scenes, and is never even mentioned when he’s not present. I assume he had more to do in some earlier version of the script or even filmed version of the movie, but what’s left is hardly worth an actor of his caliber.
The same goes for most of the other actors that aren’t Paul Bettany or Cam Gigandet; they appear in 1-3 scenes, don’t really do much, and then exit the movie, with another big action scene kicking off before you have time to question, say, why Brad Dourif would get fifth-billed for two scenes (more like a scene and a half) as a traveling snake-oil salesman named Salesman. Oh, and that’s the other thing – just about everyone in this movie lacks an actual name. Bettany is named Priest. Maggie Q’s character is, wait for it, Priestess. Luckily, Karl Urban’s villain is no longer a priest, so they don’t have to call him Other Priest or Priest #2 or something; instead he is named Black Hat. Because he has a black hat. Gigandet’s Hicks and the girl they are trying to save are pretty much the only people in the movie with actual names, something that works in a movie like Feast where they are making fun of the genre’s archetypes, but here it just seems sort of ridiculous (and this movie is DEFINITELY not meant to be silly; Bettany in particular acts like he's in Apocalypse Now or something.
One thing I quite liked was the two hero setup, as both Bettany and Gigandet are looking for the same girl but for different reasons. It’s Gigandet’s girlfriend, so his motive is obvious, but Bettany wants to potentially kill her, because if Black Hat has turned her she could kick off a whole new vampire plague (their goal is to infiltrate the city). You kind of side with both men, and thus it’s a shame that it doesn’t really come down to them facing off over what to do with her. In fact Gigandet is bizarrely sidelined for a big chunk of the climax, disappearing for a large chunk of time while Bettany battles Black Hat and Q takes on some Road Warrior rejects. He eventually does come back into play, but takes little part in the actual rescue of the girl, which would be like leaving Jack Sparrow to rescue Keira Knightley at the end of a Pirates movie and then they just sort of catch up with Orlando Bloom later. Another awkward bit, one that doesn't seem to be the fault of the editing, is that Bettany is never aware until the very end that the guy he's after is his old partner. But WE know that, which makes it kind of a lame reveal; I'm of the opinion that we should never be that much ahead of our hero (and we certainly didn't need the flashback to show us how Black Hat was snatched by the vamps in the first place - Bettany may be surprised to see the character again, but we've been cutting back and forth between the two of them throughout the whole movie).
One thing the script DID get right is providing some healthy variety in the action scenes; one on one fights, a monster battle, the train chase, a town being annihilated, etc. The movie is constantly on the move; the characters don’t stay in any one area long enough to get tired of it, and there’s a good mixture of interior and exterior action scenes as well. Some of the action is a bit ridiculous though; at one point Priestess throws some rocks (that are about half the size of a standard brick) into the air and Bettany somehow manages to not only time his already ridiculous jump to connect with them, but also somehow use them as “steps” as he ascends further into the air in order to land a blow on the monster. Sure, it’s a cool visual and definitely something you don’t see very often, but it also makes later scenes, where he can’t even deflect a single punch, seem kind of silly – what happened to his insane skills?
But really, the only thing holding the movie back is its mercenary approach to plotting/character development and seeming refusal to ever calm the fuck down. I enjoy a fast pace, and there’s no law that says a movie has to be 105 minutes or whatever, but when you’re sending me off to this unique world, with a lot of potentially interesting allegory and heroes that have morally ambiguous codes, I want the filmmakers to invest time into making these things seem real and fleshed out. If it’s say, a Fast and Furious movie, fine – it’s normal Earth, these guys want to race and avoid the cops for the bad things they’ve done. Simple. But somehow THAT new movie is 45 minutes longer than this one! Few things would surprise me less if the eventual Blu-ray release offered a longer cut of the movie, giving everyone more to do and helping clarify a few plot points.
I should note that the editing may not be solely the result of a nervous studio wanting to “trim the fat”, as was the case with the same studio’s somewhat similar Ultraviolet, which was hacked to death for its theatrical release before receiving a more respectable home video version. As most of you probably know, Priest is being presented in 3D, and like most 3D movies (sadly), it was not shot in 3D but rather converted into the format much later. As it was not designed/shot/edited for 3D, this can present many problems for the 3D artists, not to mention it’s expensive to do, so perhaps the movie was just cut down to make things easier on all levels for the 3D conversion. I can’t imagine a WORSE reason to edit a film, but as I said at the top of the review – studios and I just don’t have the same way of thinking. At any rate, I saw it in 2D anyway, because I’m not paying extra for a fake 3D experience, and I’d urge you to do the same if you plan to check the movie out. I mean, for all I know I’m completely wrong and there is no longer version of the movie (I should note that I didn't really notice anything in the trailer that wasn't in the movie, which is usually a dead giveaway - though the “additional editing by Bob Murawski” credit at the end certainly aids my suspicions), but I just find it impossible to believe that what I just saw was anyone’s “complete” vision. Luckily, what’s left is still a fairly entertaining way to kill 80 minutes (or 75 if you want to duck out early before the painful and somewhat embarrassing setup for a sequel that will most likely never exist).
What say you?
*I see a lot of midnight movies, huh? Of all the wide release horror films that I didn’t get to see early in the past year or so, I think The Roommate is the only one I saw at a normal time. Luckily I’m getting better at staying awake; I only dozed for a few minutes of this one (and not at ALL for The Rite, may I remind you).